Christ of the Klingons
We have learned a lot since God humbled Job by daring him to comprehend how Orion and the Pleiades held together. But some scientists and philosophers say our idea of the universe is still too small for the infinite mind of God.
"Creation is more vast than we've ever understood," says Gerald Cleaver, a physics professor at Baylor University. "We as humans have gone through stages, understanding reality to be much larger than it was before."
We first expanded our understanding of the cosmos from a single planet with an intriguing, sparkling sky overhead, to a system of planets circling the sun, then to a galaxy of stars. Now we know that our galaxy, comprising a hundred billion stars, is one part of a universe that includes immense superstructures containing thousands of galaxies—"Great Walls," astronomers call them, millions of light-years across. Imagining this expanse shames some of our finest minds into Job-like awe. Cleaver and others believe we might have to widen our view yet again.
"The vastness of reality makes me appreciate the vastness of the Creator," says Robin Collins, a philosophy professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. "I come into contact with it through just thinking about the universe itself. It serves as sort of an icon for me."
Cleaver and Collins say we might have a clearer answer than ever to God's later, more basic question for Job: Do you know the laws of the heavens? (38:33).
Cleaver works in a branch of theoretical physics called string theory, specifically M-Theory—the same theory that gives physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking the confidence, in his recent book with Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, to declare philosophy dead and God unnecessary.
"To me [M-Theory] offers a Christian God whose creative ability is much larger than we ever could imagine before," Cleaver says.
They Broke God's Violin
At first, string theory at its simplest had a lyrical—or at least musical—explanation. Every particle in the universe was a tiny, one-dimensional string, and different particles existed because of the different ways a string could vibrate. Physicists say that, just as different vibrations produce different notes on a violin or cello, the vibrations of a string could produce an electron, a quark, a neutrino, and so on. That, the theory said, was how the universe worked.
Those were the days. By the mid-1990s, debates over the exact properties of strings had created five competing string theories. Princeton University's Edward Witten came up with a way to stitch them together, but the result was not really a "string" theory anymore. A new, single theory arose, called M-Theory, which remains so sketchy that theorists don't agree on what the M stands for. It might be membrane.
In the old string-theory days, many theorists had come to believe that space had ten dimensions—the three directions that we see, with time as a fourth dimension, then six curled-up spatial directions that are too small to see unless you happen to be a string. M-Theory added an eleventh dimension, in which a lot seemed to be going on. In addition to one-dimensional strings, the eleventh dimension revealed multi-dimensional objects dubbed membranes (branes for short). Hidden from us with our three-dimensional perception, branes could be as small as a string or as large as a universe. In fact, some have suggested that our universe is a massive brane inside a much larger reality.
The violin metaphor doesn't really seem to encapsulate all this. But if experiments prove it accurate, M-Theory might solve several technical problems that have previously kept scientists from creating a unified "Theory of Everything." At the moment, M-Theory is the best chance scientists have for arriving at a complete picture of the universe. Some M-Theorists, Cleaver included, think ultimately it will take us even further: that our entire universe—planets, stars, Great Walls, and all—is just a "bubble" on an ocean of existence covered with many more like it.